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My four months at Dover

tristan scifo

The unexpected closure of my licensee has left me with a mixture of sadness, frustration and hope for the future. 

I'm a 30-year-old Sydneysider, husband and soon-to-be-first-time dad. 

This February I kicked-off my first ever solo business, the Purpose Advisory, with the passionate intent to offer a unique combo of financial advice and life coaching for 24-44-year-olds. I believe these two disciplines fit perfectly together and are necessary for helping our young generation of Australians live more purposeful and fulfilling lives.

Along with my degree qualifications and years of experience as an adviser, of course I also need to be licensed before I can provide financial advice to clients. So I spent six months in 2017 researching, seeking advice and interviewing the various licensees or dealer groups, and I finally decided to join an innovative and fast-growing group called Dover Financial Advisers.

This choice turned out to have been a costly one and possibly an ill-informed one. But to this day, I don't regret having made it.

Why I chose Dover

I formed a clear set of reasons for why I chose Dover as my dealer group, out of the various viable alternatives:

  • Dover was not aligned to any bank or financial product provider;
  • Dover had grown strongly over the preceding years to be one of the largest non-bank dealer groups, supporting over 400 advisers and thousands of clients;
  • The culture at Dover was generous, seemed genuinely allergic to “pushing sales” or “cookie cutter advice”, and was focused on compliant, cost-effective, goal-oriented client outcomes;
  • The leadership team at Dover had strong views about what good investment advice looked like, and they made it hard for advisers to justify high product fees;
  • Dover clearly preferred that we charge direct fees for our service, and not take commissions or referral fees - even for life insurance commissions (which are still legal and are a common form of revenue in our industry);
  • The advice documents produced through Dover were only eight to 20 pages long on average, in comparison with 40-100 pages with other groups!
  • Dover required that every single advice document we write be checked and triple-checked by solicitors and internal advice compliance experts, before it could be sent to clients;
  • Dover had a simple and affordable pricing model: I would pay them of $20,000 pa, and they offered to defer my payment by 12 months, to give me time to grow my fledgling business;
  • Dover offered me and its advisers a variety of web marketing, statement of advice generation and back-office support that not many groups offered, especially not for the price we paid; and
  • Importantly, Dover supported me offering coaching and mentoring services to my clients even when it wasn't of a strictly financial nature.

I didn't find any other dealer group in the industry that offered the same level of flexibility and support for the same price.

But the clincher for me came when I sat down with Dover's charismatic founder, sole owner and director, Terry McMaster, during my final interview with them.

I'd met Terry at one of Dover's free-to-attend training days three years beforehand, and had found him to be refreshingly opinionated and largely full of common sense. This interview with him was surprising though.

Rather than being 'salesy' or officious, I felt that Terry took on the role of a firm but caring father with me (to the extent that one can in 60 minutes), and he expressed that he was willing to support my daring vision for a new way of delivering financial advice and life coaching combined.

A good experience 

And true to their impression they were!

For the four months that I was licensed to provide advice through Dover, I felt well served by their highly responsive admin team, their firm but fair compliance team, and the concise and compliant advice documents that I produced with them for my clients. I was asked by many friends and colleagues what I thought of my experience at the time and I had nothing but a good report. If anything, I felt they spent a bit too long reviewing my advice documents, but appreciated the detailed feedback they gave me to enhance them.

After Terry McMaster appeared at the royal commission in mid-April this year and collapsed part-way through giving evidence, I was concerned at how the public representation of Dover in the hearing and in the media differed from my understanding and experience of Dover to date. Issues had been raised about the misleading title of Dover's "Client Protection Policy" and about Dover's adviser on-boarding procedures.

I was understandably concerned, however the Dover leadership team emailed all advisers with a viable explanation to all of the concerns raised, none of which appeared to be of a serious nature and all seemed to be either addressed or being managed.

This email closed with the lines: 

"Our simple suggestion from here onwards is that you keep doing what you are doing: providing quality advice and services to your clients. The industry at large has been bruised by recent events; the best way to retain and improve our reputation is through old-fashioned service. In particular, ensuring that clients get value for money remains critical, especially in the case of ongoing fees."

An unexpected email

So why was my decision to join Dover so costly in the end?

Well, just over one week ago, in the wake of the recent royal commission hearings into our financial advice industry, I and more than 400 other advisers received an email from Terry McMaster stating that he had agreed with ASIC to shut down Dover and that our authority to provide financial advice would be revoked as of midnight that night.

This was shocking and confusing news. We'd been given no clear reason for why this was happening, and no clear guidance on how we could continue to serve our clients effectively with important advice over the busy month of June, when most end of financial year decisions are made!

A great loss

I write this today with a mixture of sadness, frustration and hope churning within me.

I am sad because I genuinely believe that Dover had created something special. It had struck a chord with starry-eyed and old-school advisers alike who were flocking to join the group for various reasons. It had created something unique that enabled it to review every single piece of advice that was delivered to clients. And what is more, Dover stood for something. It was by no means perfect, but Dover empowered me as an adviser to create a business that made financial advice more relevant and affordable for the young Australians I work with.

I'm frustrated because I still don't know why all of this happened. I can't yet carry on with the work I love doing for my clients, and my clients can't yet get the service they deserve. This ordeal will likely cost our business in the order of a few thousand dollars, but worse still is that I and our business have already been marred in the public eye by our mere association with Dover.

Neither ASIC nor Dover have confirmed what was sufficiently wrong with the dealer group to lead it to be shut down. And I feel I'm left up the creek without a paddle, as I've spent all week working to research and get re-registered with a new dealer group (hopefully better than the last) but I have no guarantee I will be released by Dover to enable me to transfer to this new group before 6 July 2018. Dover has taken the stance that it will not facilitate my transfer until I settle my licensing fee account with them in full, which they had previously promised me 12 months to settle.

Why there is still hope
But I'm still hopeful because, throughout this last week, I've seen more genuine care, support, generosity, courage and collaboration between the hundreds of affected advisers and the thousands of un-affected advisers who've witnessed this unfold. I've received seven phone calls and tens of emails and messages from mentor figures and acquaintances in the industry in the matter of a few days.

I see groups of ex-Dover advisers working together, and I've been in touch with the directors of various dealer groups who have courageously decided to take on ex-Dover advisers despite the extra work and scrutiny this would attract over the coming years.

Whatever the cause of Dover's shutdown, hundreds of good quality financial advisers and tens of thousands of unwitting clients have been adversely affected by likely the actions of just a few. Many in our profession are recognising that we need to support one another and challenge one another to aspire for greater standards of professionalism. I am hopeful this experience will further unite our industry to champion the vision of client-focused, high quality and accessible financial advice for all Australians.

To be honest, I do feel somewhat disappointed at myself for not being more sceptical of the information I was given about Dover during my research last year.

But I asked plain questions to the right people and was given clear answers that I believed. Time will tell, it seems, the nature of ASIC's specific concerns with Dover's operation.

But until then, I encourage anyone reading this to suspend their judgement on who or what might be the culprit here, and instead consider each person, business and matter on its own merits.

Our industry is definitely a murky place, and this year's royal commission has been shining a welcome spotlight on what is going on in the dark. But I also believe there is more good going on than is being reported, and it will take some time for these great stories to be told.

I still intend for our business to be one of these great stories, and I know many of my friends and mentors in the financial advice industry feel the same. 

Tristan Scifo is director, financial adviser and coach at Purpose Advisory and an authorised representative of Dover Financial Advisers